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Summer/Fall 2019

The Mother of All Mistakes


by Thomas Kearnes


Abetted by the white bulbs’ sinister glow, she navigated a cornucopia of cosmetics—pale pink lip gloss, eyeliner, eye shadow the hue of bruises, rouge—with the serene confidence of a Mary Kay veteran. The focus necessary for it blunted her panic. If Mr. Leonard won’t show mercy, she wondered, who will help my son become a man?

Her disguise complete, Josie Child studied herself in the cluster of mirrors. Captured from myriad angles, her face split and shifted, incompatible puzzle pieces. The surfaces collided to form a reflection of no coherence. Her mother had often told her that beauty was to women what money was to men. Clicking off the lights, she felt grateful she’d had no daughters.

The trip from her house, the spoils of a quick and dirty divorce, to Mr. Leonard’s group home took less than twenty minutes. The journey from the plantation-style properties to a subdivision with just-add-water tract housing, however, underlined this stark contrast. She traveled not between neighborhoods, but discrete universes among the Houston metroplex.

She stopped at the corner store two blocks from Leonard’s Place. Topping off her tank, she brainstormed how to handle the group home’s proprietor. He’d called her last night, irate. He’d called her, demanded that they meet today. She hoped her deep discomfort with angry black men didn’t destroy her credibility as Cory’s mother. As she sealed the tank, that genius response to Mr. Leonard’s indignation continued to elude her. She paused to examine herself, while leaving, in a store window. Happy Holidays was written in shoe polish beneath her reflection. Men liked women who made an effort. Nearing fifty, however, an effort was required more days than not.

As she parked, her tires scraped the curb. Mr. Leonard’s house appeared meager and generic from the street, scarcely large enough for a couple and their two-point-five children, let alone the six men he’d split between two bedrooms. Neither were larger than his abode, the master bedroom in the rear. She couldn’t see inside. Mr. Leonard forbid his tenants from raising the blinds or opening the garage without his consent. The waning daylight, in that moment, seemed to Josie more precious than platinum.

After clearing her throat, she balled her fist to knock. Before her knuckles hit wood, a man behind the door called out for Mr. Leonard. She paused. Was that Emile? Or perhaps the swaybacked boy who staggered about on a crutch? Ear pressed against the door, flaking white paint tickling her cheek, she listened to the commotion unspool.

“It’s Wally! He’s butt-ass naked!”

That instant, Mr. Leonard bellowed for Wally to get his ass back inside the bathroom. Even through the door, Josie heard each word clearly. She wondered why he bothered with all the privacy measures if the drama inside was loud enough to draw neighbors. Stay there, he ordered. He’d find a clean pair of shorts.

Josie backed away, convinced her propriety would be noted by an authority unseen yet sentient to all her affairs, her feelings, and failings. Behind her, the young man offered a bright greeting. Her breath caught. It was difficult to remember these men didn’t vaporize every time she left and returned to the relief of daylight.

“I’ll make sure the situation is rated PG,” the young man promised. “Wait right here.”

“I was about to knock…”

The young man climbed onto the porch. “Just normal pandemonium.” He gestured toward a rocking chair. Josie understood she was to sit patiently while the young man, Emile, helped restore order. After a few moments, he poked his head through the doorway and informed Josie that Mr. Leonard was expecting her. “Just enough time before we start supper,” the young man added.

“I should’ve called before coming,” she said. “I wasn’t sure when the best time might be.”

She lightly raked her fingers through bright blonde hair, shaking her tresses in a limp attempt at informality. The pantsuit was too dressy. The paisley scarf knotted around her neck only made her more conspicuous. She had to beg a man to spare her son. He’d wind up on the streets, she’d planned to say. Of course, his bedroom at home was still tidy and waiting, but Mr. Leonard didn’t need to know that.

A spindly old man with a snow-white beard drawled for Cory to come see his mother. His noxious smile unnerved Josie so completely, she failed to return it. His name was Buster…or maybe Boomer? Some name more common among dogs than men.

Mr. Leonard entered the hall, the washing machine having rumbled to life in the room behind him. The beefy black man acknowledged his guest with a curt nod. “You boys remember we got a lady in the house,” he said. “No bullshit. Keep it clean.”

He was short and stout, his jeans pressed with creases, bare head smooth and mouth full of dazzling teeth. A silver ID bracelet, contender engraved upon it, wrapped his thick wrist. She’d been surprised when Cory revealed he was at least fifty-five. He’d aged miraculously well. She, on the other hand, had gone to so much trouble to look her best, but no one gave a damn.

The master bedroom hosted a daisy chain of unpleasantness among the group-home manager and his clients, or the occasional family member. In the living room, a widescreen plasma television aired a COPS rerun. The scabby, skinny streetwalker onscreen was bullshitting an officer, the man she’d solicited already cuffed. Emile watched the whole scene dispassionately, sucking on his e-cigarette. The dense, bright vapor hung in the air like a lover’s guilt. The other men bunched about the room like hairs around a bathtub drain. There was no Christmas tree, not a stocking, not a single string of lights.

Josie stopped halfway down the hall. “Is my…is my son already inside?” She gestured toward Mr. Leonard’s bedroom.

Behind her, a sullen squeak solved the mystery. “Mom, I’m right here.” She glanced over her shoulder, unsurprised yet disappointed anew in the boy dragging his feet across the shag carpet toward Mr. Leonard’s lair. Cory was tall but no one noticed, his slouch too pronounced. He hadn’t cut his hair in months, and he never bothered to style it. He wore a Simpsons T-shirt reading “Worst T-Shirt Ever,” the artwork distended by his lewd belly. Her little misanthrope, she noted, hardly old enough for junior college.

Mr. Leonard shook his head in dismay and disappeared inside his room. Josie and her son followed. She felt a pang of sympathy for this black man forced to conduct business in his own bedroom. What if life’s events confronted her where she slept, before the makeup, before the solace of her now-silent mornings.

The widescreen plasma television mounted on the wall dominated the entire space. His desk, a no-name laptop perched upon it, stood shyly in the far corner. A twin bed was tucked opposite that, bedspread folded so crisply that sleep seemed unwelcome. A leather recliner, beige and big, was too close to the television. The same episode of COPS continued. The streetwalker yelped as the officer forced her into his cruiser.

Mr. Leonard, distracted, invited them to sit. After he’d claimed the recliner, however, only a desk chair remained. Cory plopped down, the chair creaking in dismay. All that remained was Mr. Leonard’s bed. Abashed, Josie sat primly on its edge. She tried to forget that this is where the black man slept.

His bedroom door remained rudely open. Josie couldn’t bring herself to insist on privacy.

“Been havin’ problems with your boy for a good long while,” he began. “I hoped we wouldn’t need to make that phone call, but this boy don’t goddamn listen.”

Josie couldn’t meet his gaze. Cory glared at the floor.

The boy was stealing other clients’ medication, Mr. Leonard said. He took too long in the bathroom, sometimes over an hour. He wouldn’t pick up his clothes. He never helped with the chores. “And he don’t seem too familiar with basic hygiene.”

“Hate this fucking place,” Cory muttered.

Josie blanched. “That word doesn’t impress me, you know.”

Mr. Leonard threw his hands above his head, frustrated. “Damn, Mrs. Child, we got worse problems than the F-bomb.”

“He’s my only child.” He was comfortable expressing fury, she thought. Don’t speculate why. “He’s not used to all this…excitement.”

“He had time to adjust, Mrs. Child. It been almost three months.”

Cory rolled his eyes at them both. “Don’t talk about me like I’m not here! Fuck!”

Josie had quickly lost hope of steering this confrontation. Mr. Leonard seemed in total command of this encounter, and Josie sat still, feeling silly in her peach pantsuit. She looked at Mr. Leonard while he gazed, disgusted, into nowhere.

“I come off a hard-ass,” Mr. Leonard said, “but I care ‘bout these boys.” He rattled off a semi-coherent story about getting shot in the back over a failed drug deal. Not crack or heroin, but fucking marijuana. For over ten years, he’d lived with the pain. He firmly believed, as God had told him directly, he must guide other troubled men to a more righteous path, or his anguish meant nothing. “Take Emile, for instance. My greatest success story…”

“He’s a fag, Mom.”

Her voice tightened. “That wasn’t necessary!” She smiled, big and stupid. She wouldn’t let the black man know how her son embarrassed her.

Mr. Leonard ordered Cory to leave. Josie gazed at her son as he shuffled into the hall. He didn’t return her gaze. Once he was gone, the group-home manager shut the door with a gravitas that unnerved Josie. She’d never been alone with a black man. What would Daisy—or Victor!—think? Mr. Leonard sat, delicately, next to her on the bed. He did not touch her. He gestured grandly, detailing the hopes he still had for her son. He’d seen worse boys, he claimed, and they left here great men. “Hope, to me,” he said, “is anything but a luxury.” He promised to keep Josie updated through text messages. They’d meet again in person, the three of them, in a week.

She offered her hand, expecting Mr. Leonard to shake it. Instead, he took it tenderly into his own, like a lover, like someone whom he would never be. The black man was touching her! His skin was rough and dry like an emery board. The shooting left him in such constant pain, he confessed, he couldn’t endure normal socializing. “I miss women. You know what I’m saying…”

She knew what he was saying.

After she left Mr. Leonard’s room, the door whispering shut behind her, Emile invited her to stay for dinner. Spaghetti, he said. With extra sauce! Josie was tempted, she said, but she had another engagement. She told her son goodbye. Her words traveled through the sliding glass door, opened wide, where Cory sucked down a cigarette.

“I tell him to try vaping,” Emile said. “I’m saving a small fortune.”

“Thank you for having me,” she said absently. “I hope Santa’s good to each of you.”

The men in the living room—Wally, the spindly old man, the man on the crutch and the rest—stared as she left. Shutting the door, she felt their eyes on her. Her son treated his housemates with such contempt, and she wanted to believe that was an uncharitable belief. She hoped, however, no one had noticed her similar disdain.

Her son was too old for military school or anything that reputable. Her ex-husband Lyle had always chided her for failing to instill discipline in the boy. Since childhood, Cory’d done only the work necessary to make a passing grade. He didn’t play sports, he didn’t care about college, he made no effort to find a job. His friendships, few as they were, involved other sullen boys who sat with him, staring stupidly at the television, video-game joysticks or remote controls at hand. He lacked direction, she’d decided, but couldn’t find any solution that didn’t make her cringe: drill sergeants, uniforms, the belief that any whiff of individuality indicated a character defect. Lyle had long ago abandoned hope, and Josie feared her middle age would be spent kowtowing to her sour-tempered spawn.

Her friend Daisy had told her about group homes. These places—very private, very discreet—were where troubled young men, whether just out of prison or rehab, could bond and, together, construct a worthy existence. She’d never before insisted her son do anything. There are certain things a mother can’t teach, she’d said. Cory simply muttered an obscenity and slinked back to his room. She’d packed his belongings herself.

 Driving home, she wasn’t surprised to hear her cell phone chime with a new text. Since Cory’s departure, her social life had drastically improved. She hoped it was Victor, with his pretense of asking about their book club, his naked desire for her hardly a secret. Instead, it was Mr. Leonard. He wrote that he’d had a long discussion with Cory after she left. He’d apologized for insulting Emile. Maybe he even meant it, concluded Mr. Leonard.

Gazing so intently at the message, she almost front-ended a neighbor’s passing car. His familiar tone unnerved her. He was speaking to her like they were friends. It was Cory, though, who was supposed to be making friends.

The house, cavernous and sterile, was silent when she walked into the foyer. She’d enjoyed the novelty of quiet the first couple of weeks after Cory went to Leonard’s Place. The lack of commotion had started to seem, to her, like a sort of death. Lives were noisy. If her house offered no noise, she wasn’t living an actual life. She stepped more forcefully on the tiles, the clickity-clack of her heels comforting her. She’d turn on the air conditioner, despite the chill outside. She’d turn on the television, the station didn’t matter. She would not be swallowed whole by a house full of things and other things. She hoped Victor would call.

Rising late the next morning, well past nine, two unread texts awaited her. Surely, one had to be from Victor. Instead, Daisy had asked her to join her on yet another spa weekend. Instead, Mr. Leonard had written, Cory seemed really crabby this morning. Was he that way as a kid? She had typed a whole response before realizing she wasn’t obligated to respond at all. Mr. Leonard’s text felt like idle chatter, the sort of message intended to ignite conversation. Still, it would’ve been rude to ignore him, and he did, after all, hold her son’s future in his hands. I guess so, she typed. She sent the message. She waited, cell phone in hand, for several minutes. She didn’t know why she waited. She’d never before waited on a black man to text or call.

“Have you thought about whether you want Cory home for Christmas?” Daisy, her sharp chin resting on the cushioned massage table, asked questions in such a blasé manner, she must’ve expected the answer, whatever it was, to bore her. Josie liked to imagine her friend was so disconnected that she, Josie, was free to say anything.

“I’m still debating whether I want a tree!”

“Dumpling, you must have a tree. And you must have plenty under it.”

“He hasn’t even told me what he wants this year.”

“There’s nothing a boy his age wants that a mother might have.”

“I thought maybe I could send him to Lyle’s for the holidays.”

“Oh, dumpling! Exquisitely selfish and very practical! I’m impressed!”

While the tanned masseuses rubbed her back, fingers moving in slow circles, Josie kept gazing at her cell phone. Would Mr. Leonard text again? How would she make sure Daisy didn’t notice? Her friend supported civil rights for all, much like her, but there was a clear line that must never be crossed. For Josie, flirting atop this line proved a pleasant distraction from the predictable pampering. She didn’t even resent Daisy’s acidic glibness.

Josie didn’t expect her son to pick up the phone when she called that night. He never picked up. If he needed her, he would call, his voice melodious and sweet, the boy full of apologies and promises neither of them believed. She left her usual message: how are things at the house? Are you being good? She, of course, didn’t tell him about Mr. Leonard. She’d planned to tell him but hung up before saying the words.

Mr. Leonard sent a text shortly afterward. He told her what the boy was watching on TV. All these trashy shows about trashy people, he wrote. Not like the shows we used to watch. It was true that she and Mr. Leonard were from the same generation. She remembered little from her childhood except that she didn’t care to remember more. She felt included, unexpectedly so, one adult reaching to another and nakedly hoping. I don’t even watch TV anymore, she wrote back. This wasn’t true, of course. Everyone watched TV. But, still, he responded. And, still, she responded to him. And then it was past ten in the evening. Hadn’t Victor promised to call?

Two days before their planned face-to-face meeting, Josie received an odd message from Mr. Leonard: don’t forget to fold the laundry before you leave. She wasn’t sure how she felt about this non sequitur—Mr. Leonard didn’t seem like a fan of the willfully absurd. She sent a bundle of question marks in response, and he followed instantly with an apology. He’d meant to text Emile and got distracted. She didn’t know how she felt about him texting others with enough regularity to invite confusion. She’d thought this, whatever this was, was hers alone. She didn’t acknowledge his apology.

Josie chose a lightweight summer dress for her visit to Leonard’s Place. She’d always loved the way it clung to her breasts and hips, sophisticated yet approachable. All she lacked was someone to approach her. After parking, she realized she’d been saving the dress for the next book club meeting. It had been intended for Victor. I’ll simply wear it again, she told herself.

Wally lumbered toward her the moment she walked through the door. He was sorry he didn’t know where to poop. He was embarrassed and he was so, so sorry. She brought out her most gracious smile. She wouldn’t have even remembered, she told him, had he not brought it up.

“What bullshit,” Cory muttered. After a fierce reaction seen by no one but him, she and her son joined Mr. Leonard in his bedroom. She listened as the group-home manager started with guarded praise. Cory was getting better at cleaning up after himself and limiting his time in the bathroom. But he couldn’t seem to get along, however, with Emile.

“He’s always telling me what to do,” Cory huffed.

“You know he’s in charge when I’m not here.”

Josie, once again seated on Mr. Leonard’s bed, spoke sharply. “Just because we don’t like someone doesn’t mean we disrespect them.”

“He takes it up the ass. Fuck him.”

Unlike the initial meeting, Cory’s childishness seemed to deflate Mr. Leonard. Josie wondered whether he was just going through the motions. During this visit, he hadn’t once mentioned banishing her son. Why was a sit-down necessary? He knew her number. Of course, she thought. He wanted to see me. After this epiphany, it wasn’t only Mr. Leonard who went through the motions. Josie took turns chastising and cautiously praising the boy, but all the talk was just prologue to the moment Mr. Leonard sent Cory out of the room.

“I still have hope,” Mr. Leonard said, rising from the recliner. Josie felt certain he’d come directly to her, where she sat, on his bed. Instead he opened a desk drawer. The many minor noises that junk makes inside a drawer filled the room. Finally, the crinkle of tissue paper made itself apparent. In his dark, muscular hands, Mr. Leonard held an object about the size of a baseball, wrapped in green tissue paper. He approached her. It was a gift. Yes, next week was Christmas. She hadn’t bought her son a single thing.

“I saw this in Walmart and thought of you right away.” He sat beside her on the bed.

She blushed. “I didn’t get you anything. I’m…”

He shook his head and handed her the gift. She carefully peeled away the rustling paper. She didn’t remember the last time a man surprised her with a present. Or had she expected this? She was wearing her favorite dress.

It was a coffee mug: white porcelain with the word MOM written in large bubble letters on its side. She hated coffee. She didn’t especially need another reminder of her greatest failure in life. It was a cheap piece of crap, but now it was her crap.

“It’s like something a child might make,” she said.

“Hey, maybe a child did make it.”

“Let’s hope not a mistreated one from Taiwan.”

His gaze went blank. “What does that mean?” He didn’t sound hurt, merely confused. Josie could’ve dealt better with hurt.

“Nothing.” She gestured at his face, fingertips safely distant, but when he flinched, the absurdity of her gratitude announced itself. “I’ll bring you something next week, I swear.”

“You don’t gotta do that,” he said casually. “Besides, that be the day after Christmas.”

Her son must’ve seen her face. Just because Cory rarely showed interest in others’ emotions didn’t mean he was blind. After Josie shut the bedroom door, cradling the ugly coffee mug to her breasts, her son’s glare accosted her.

“Did he give you that?” he asked.

“Yes, it’s a Christmas present.”

He sucked on a cigarette. “What were you two talking about?”

“What else, honey? We talked about you.”

Driving home that night, she made a sudden U-turn for the mall, just a half-hour from closing. It hardly mattered what she bought her son. He took pride in how little she knew about him, and he knew that this meant any present she gave would appear thoughtless. But he was her son, her only child, and Christmas was about parents making their children’s wishes come true. She strode past the stores, vetoing one after another. She couldn’t buy clothing—she’d lost track of his size. She couldn’t buy music—she didn’t know what he liked. Finally, at the mall’s far end, was a store notorious for carrying X-rated party games and lewd T-shirts. She’d never been inside. She imagined a locker room in which all the crude jocks had transformed into novelty items. Finally, she saw, tucked away on a low shelf, an ashtray with a drawing in its dish of a closed hand, middle finger extended.

It was perfect. She choked on tears. The clerk offered to wrap it in green tissue paper.

He’d wanted to call, Victor said the next night, but grading finals gobbled up all his time. “You don’t want to know how many college kids can’t write a basic essay.” This would be their first night together, but it felt to Josie like a state visit. He flipped the omelet, the masterwork landing perfectly inside the pan. On the stove’s other burner, another omelet conspired for a heavenly aroma. He had his back to Josie, hadn’t turned away from his pans in several minutes, giving her ample opportunity to sneak a text to Mr. Leonard. As Victor prattled on about America’s ill-fated generation of young scholars, Josie couldn’t help thinking how wonderful it would be if Cory had that problem. That would’ve meant he was in college, and it would’ve meant a professor took his education seriously enough to offer criticism. Instead, she’d left the green-wrapped novelty ashtray, bought moments before closing, in the backseat of her car.

I finally found a present for Cory, she wrote.

Victor was warbling some show tune from a long-closed historical musical. If wallpaper were given voice, she thought, it would sound like this. She only wondered when this bore would call because it gave her something to anticipate and dread in equal measures, like an eclipse.

After Mr. Leonard asked what she’d found, she wrote, It’s stupid. He’ll hate it.

Right away, she received his response: He’s damn lucky to have you for a mom.

She was so touched, it almost didn’t matter that she felt like an enormous fraud. Her MOM mug sat on the kitchen counter. Victor hadn’t noticed it. Even if he had, he rarely commented on what he felt was simple kitsch.

She wrote, He’s lucky to have you, too.

And then nothing. Josie had abandoned all pretense of participating in Victor’s diatribe. She snapped to attention to find him, hips against the stove, looking indulgently over his shoulder. She wanted to slap him, record the smack and then force him to watch it on an endless loop.

“Breakfast is mere moments away,” he cooed.

“It’s all I’ve been thinking about,” she said, voice hollow.

“Lies and deception.” He was so damn chipper, and she hated him.

Josie reluctantly gave herself over to the many tiny rituals of etiquette that governed the first time a man cooked for you. Despite herself, she was grateful those gestures and words were so easily accessed. She was sleeping, she was pretending to be awake—she’d forgotten, however, whom she wished to deceive.

I’ll take him to bed tonight, she decided, right after she complimented his culinary prowess. That was the sort of thing that happened between people like them. It was foolish to pretend otherwise. Afterward, they might discuss the book they’d both been pretending to enjoy. The club met soon after Christmas. The novel was about an extended family traveling across the country during The Great Depression. Josie wondered why they simply didn’t turn around and return home. California was a pathetic life goal.

The lovemaking was pleasant and mercifully brief. Victor did the proper thing and dozed off moments after their bodies separated. Josie kept glancing at her cell phone laying on the nightstand. She didn’t understand how Mr. Leonard could abandon such an intimate discussion. This web she’d spun around her marathon texts with him forever threatened to tear apart. Victor snored lightly.

The cell phone chirped. She looked at the display: the land line of Leonard’s Place. He’d never used that line to contact her before. After all, the phone was located right there in the kitchen, zero privacy included. And Cory would’ve called on the cell phone she dutifully paid for each month, convinced he’d drift into complete seclusion without it.

“You gotta come quick!” It was Wally, frantic. “Mr. Leonard’s gonna call the cops!”

“What’s going…where’s my son?”

“Come quick, lady, please! He’s gonna call the cops!”

Men were shouting over the line, pandemonium. She tossed the phone onto the nightstand without hanging up, tugged on a pair of jeans and a jersey, and grabbed a coat hanging from the pegboard. She caught a glimpse of herself in her vanity. The mirrors’ multiple angles distorted and disrupted her face. It was the same trouble with beauty she’d always had. Victor called out from the bed.

“Darling, what’s wrong?”

“I have to find my son. I’ll be back.”

He snapped up in bed, gallantly tossing off the covers. “Let me drive you.”

“This has nothing to do with you.” The acid in her voice stunned Victor. He slowly reclined back onto the mattress. “I won’t be long,” she added softly.

Those twenty minutes from her child’s only real home to her child’s make-believe home, they’d never seemed longer or to begin and end with such extremes. She’d cast off her only child into an overcrowded dormitory run by an angry black man who believed the angels were on his side. Except he wasn’t angry with her. Except he’d given her son a second chance. Except the shouts and chaos booming from inside Mr. Leonard’s home greeted her like a wave as she dashed toward the house.

She threw open the front door, pushed through the screen door. The men sloppily circled the living room. Two chairs and a coffee table were overturned. Cory, her son, brandished a butcher knife. She’d never seen him looking so animated, so perversely alive. She didn’t recognize him but knew at once this was her son. Facing off against him, Mr. Leonard wielded a baseball bat. A large mirror hanging on the wall had been shattered. No one paid her arrival much mind; the chaos simply consumed her as it had the others.

Mr. Leonard’s eyes were wide, teeth gnashed, muscles tensed. The baseball bat seemed a perfectly natural extension of his erupting temper. “Josie, you tell your son nothin’ happened, all right?” The streak of fear in his voice surprised her. She hadn’t known black men acknowledged fear. They never did on COPS. Also, who was afraid of her son? “Josie, you tell him that!”

Cory stammered, voice harsh, “Some nigger touched my mother!” Finally, he glanced at her. “How could you let him touch you?!?” He looked so horrified, she instantly knew she’d done something wrong. The fact she couldn’t recall the sin in particular didn’t matter a bit.

The hysteria swept through her. “What are you talking about, honey? What do you think happened?”

“Emile, that faggot, he showed me a text,” Cory said, panting, “meant for you. It said, Josie, let’s not make this into something it’s not. What the fuck else could it mean?” He was staring at his mother, terror in his eyes. More than anything, her son needed an explanation that would instantly undo what was about to be done. Josie, however, was too struck by the realization that the text Emile had received by mistake was meant for her. It was meant in reply to her message: He’s lucky to have you, too.

Her gaze flitted for a moment across the room. Arms crossed over his chest, ugly satisfaction in his smile, Emile stood apart from the melee, but she knew instantly that he was the instigator. He’d wanted Cory out of the house, the boy who ridiculed him, so when Mr. Leonard texted him unwittingly, he showed it to her son, letting his imagination do the rest. Emile, he was one of Mr. Leonard’s success stories.

Mr. Leonard and Cory circled one another like gladiators in a cage, Josie rushing their circle of contention but always drawing back. She had to protect her son from the angry black man. Perhaps he sensed this instinct of hers for at that moment he lost his focus, knife dropping to his side. “Mom,” he said, “just tell me it’s not true.”

Mr. Leonard swung the bat at Cory’s hand, the one brandishing the knife, but the boy deflected the attack, his arm sending the bat directly upside his head. The sickening crack silenced the house. Josie didn’t see the impact. One moment, her son was staring dew-eyed at her and the next he was on the floor, shielding his bloody head. Even with the boy plainly disarmed, Mr. Leonard wouldn’t relinquish the bat.

Josie leapt upon his back, wrapped an arm around his neck. “Fucking nigger, don’t touch my baby!” Those words snuffed the altercation for good. She let herself slip from his shoulders, almost toppling when her feet hit the floor. Cory writhed in pain, bleeding through his hands. Mr. Leonard stood breathless, his shoulders quaking. He gazed at Josie before collecting himself. He was crushed, and she would’ve rather dealt with that than this. She pulled her son to his feet, ordered him to wait in the car. Unsteady, blood streaming behind him, he tottered away.

“I’ll come for his things in the morning,” she told Mr. Leonard. He nodded, resigned, refusing to look at her. He hadn’t let go of the bat. As she strode through the front door, oddly serene, Wally waved goodbye.

She raced toward the nearest emergency room, Cory using her winter coat to soak up the blood. He was stunned, and she worried he might go into shock. Winters Memorial was just two miles away. The sheath of silence they’d entered surprised her, coming on the heels of such violence and hate. She was proud of her son for defending her honor, no matter how brutally or mistakenly. That meant something. His room was ready at her house, their house, awaiting him.

“When we get you stitched up, I have a present for you.”

Cory turned to her, and she saw the gash striped along the side of his head.

“I saw it in the store and thought of you right away.”

His words barely audible, he asked what it was.

“Let’s get you better first,” she said. “Christmas can wait.”

A pothole rattled them, Cory wincing in pain. She’d made a mistake; she’d been careless with her child. She sought forgiveness, but that unseen yet sentient authority wouldn’t respond. She would give her only child an ashtray. It had a hand, middle finger extended, painted in its dish. It was a cheap piece of crap.



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